Good Advice for for the (Starry) Night Life

Hello again. Welcome back to another instalment of the DAA blog!
I’ve been quite busy and quite active this summer when it comes to photography. I’ve been out shooting almost every weekend where the weather cooperates. Anyone who’s been following me on Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter will know I’ve published a lot of pics over the last few months. I’m even beginning to think that now I no longer can call myself a novice at astrophotography. I believe I’ve stepped into the the “intermediate” category. I’m still learning, but I’m at a stage now where I’m experienced enough to know what I need to do, what not to do, and understand how my different settings on my camera will affect my final product.

That said, this blog entry is all about lessons learned. Recently I’ve written two separate “how-to” blog entries dealing with how to shoot the night sky and  improvised dew control methods. But this time, I’m dealing with just generic advice that can apply to anyone and is not directly related to the equipment you’re using or the process of taking pics.

As anyone who knows me or follows this blog may already know, I’m a regular at the Lennox and Addington Dark Sky Viewing area and have been since spring 2014. In that time, it’s become a quite popular dark sky site in Eastern Ontario and people travel from all over to come and see the darkest skies available in south eastern Ontario. This summer has seen a large increase in attendance at the site, and it’s quite a mixed group of people. I’ve seen quite a few experienced observers and photographers that show up to practice their hobby. And nothing in this blog will be news to them. It’s the “other” group of people that this is really geared at – novice and casual observers who make novice mistakes without even knowing it.

These are the well-meaning, curious people that want to see the night sky. They’re not regular public dark site attendees and don’t necessarily know the etiquette for using a public dark site nor do they realize what to expect or how to prepare for it. Some people are driving from Toronto or farther just to come and spend a couple of hours under the stars.  They have no cameras, telescopes or binoculars. They just come to take in the sights. There has also been a much higher concentration of photographers wanting to try their hand at Milky Way and sky photography for the first time. And of course, there are novices showing up with their shiny new telescope they haven’t a clue how to use. And I’ve noticed the common errors many of these people make
This blog entry is a set of guidelines when going to a public dark sky site – be it as a casual observer, photographer, or dragging your mini observatory out with you. Many of these may seem like common sense, but over the years, I’ve come to realize that common sense is nowhere near as common as the name implies. Therefore, these things must be said.

1. Dress for the conditions: Sure, it may be a blistering 30+ºC when you leave home for the site. But come 2 AM, the temperature can dip down significantly to the mid teens, particularly in early and late summer. The high humidity that made it feel several degrees warmer than it actually was all day is now going to make it feel several degrees colder at night. That tank top those shorts and sandals aren’t going to cut it. Also, make sure you wear comfortable footwear as you may be standing for a considerable amount of time. And ladies, a dark sky site is not a night club. No one cares what you look like. Leave the stiletto heels in the car and wear real shoes. I wish I was kidding on that last point, but I’m not. I’ve seen it a few times now.

2. Bring insect repellent: When you go out to a remote site away from the city, you’re going to encounter an increase in mosquitoes and other bugs looking to feed on you.  If you head out without any insect repellent, then you’re offering yourself up as a meal to literally millions of hungry mosquitoes that WILL show up. Again, I wish I was kidding with that “millions” figure, but I may even be understating it. And of course, like the last point states, dress for the conditions. Wear long pants – preferably made of thicker material like denim so you can’t be stung through your clothes. And wear either long sleeves, or bring a jacket. A hat is good too. And in case you didn’t know, wearing cologne and perfumes actually attracts insects. If you insist on wearing it, then I encourage your to do so. But please don’t stand near me. I want the bugs attracted to you, not me.

3. Know your gear before bringing it out to a dark site: Nothing is more frustrating than fumbling around in the dark with equipment that you’re unfamiliar with. Whether it’s cameras, lenses, tripods, telescopes, etc, make sure you’ve gotten familiar with your equipment before taking it out. Granted, in some cases, you won’t be able to use the gear unless you’re out in the dark, but take time to play with it, read the manual and get familiar with it in day light before bringing it out to an observing or photo session. I can’t begin to recount how many times I’ve spent a significant amount of time at the DSVA helping out some poor, lost noobie who just picked up a new piece of gear on his way to the site and has no clue how to use it. In some cases, I have no clue either, but just by my past experience, I’m usually able to figure it out. But even when I get something new, even though I know how it works, I try to experiment with it in day light at home first. I’m always happy to help out someone in need, but how much easier this would have been had the person examined their gear in daylight and read the manual before arriving.

4. Practice light management: I get it. It’s dark. You’re at an unfamiliar location. You don’t want to trip over stuff. So you bring a flashlight. Fair enough. But there’s no need to carry an 80 000 lumen LED spotlight you could signal the Voyager probes with. Make sure that it’s a DIM flashlight, or ideally a red one. Or use the screen of your smart phone vs the LED light. It takes an average of about 20 minutes for human eyes to adapt to a dark environment. In that 20 minutes, you really won’t see much of anything. Once adapted, you’ll see surprisingly well, even on a moonless night. But turning on a bright flashlight every few minutes just resets that counter.

If you must use a white flashlight, cover the beam with a piece of clothing or something to dim it. And please, don’t flash it in other peoples’ faces. Bright light is painful to dark adapted eyes, and you’ll end up angering people by ruining their night vision. And if you use your phone or a tablet to use a planetarium app to find your way around the sky, please dim the screen. And many planetarium apps will have a “night mode” that turns the screen red. Please use it.

5. If you brought it to the site with you, take it with you when you leave: This goes for both personal belongings and waste. Make sure that you have all your belongings with you when you leave. Nothing sucks more than forgetting equipment or personal effects. And nothing sucks more for other people than showing up to a dark site and seeing a bunch of garbage lying around left there by people that were there the night before. Bring your waste with you when you leave.

6. Give other people their space to work. Don’t set your gear up inches away from someone else’s. Leave some buffer. Realize that all it takes is a small accidental bump of someone else’s tripod to completely ruin their imaging session. A little tap on someone’s telescope tripod means they have to stop everything they’re doing and go through an entire alignment routine again, get their target back in frame, reset their shooing plan. A slight moment of clumsiness means you’ve just destroyed the work someone has been doing for potentially a couple of hours. Also, the simple vibration of heavy walking can actually transfer vibration to someone’s camera or scope which can shot up as jitters in their exposure. Be courteous and give people their space.

7. Don’t be an “askhole”: An askhole is defined as a person who seeks out the advice of others, monopolizes their time, but then disregards the advice or argues as to why their own unsuccessful method is “better”. In my experience, people at public dark sky sites are always happy to help out if you need assistance or have questions. But be respectful. If you seek advice, you should probably heed it, particularly if  your method isn’t working out. Keep in mind that our time under the stars is short and valuable. We don’t mind helping beginners, but we don’t like having our time wasted either.

So that’s all I’ve got for the time being. Perhaps I’ll revisit this blog in the future and add more to it. If I do, I’ll likely reshare it via my Facebook page.
So until next time, clear skies, and keep those eyes and lenses pointed up!